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Criminal charges expected for ousted Temple dean in rankings scandal, lawyers say

Meanwhile, Temple for the first time directly blamed M. Moshe Porat for the school's manipulation of data in a recent court filing, calling him the "mastermind" at the "heart of the scandal."

Moshe Porat, former dean of Temple University's Fox School of Business, speaks during a news conference announcing a $25 million defamation lawsuit against the university at the Hilton hotel on City Avenue in Philadelphia on Thursday, May 2, 2019.
Moshe Porat, former dean of Temple University's Fox School of Business, speaks during a news conference announcing a $25 million defamation lawsuit against the university at the Hilton hotel on City Avenue in Philadelphia on Thursday, May 2, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

A long-running criminal probe into efforts by Temple University’s business school to boost its national rankings with false data is expected to conclude in the coming weeks with prosecutors recommending criminal charges against its former dean, according to recent court filings and interviews with sources familiar with the matter.

Attorneys for M. Moshe Porat — who led the Fox School of Business for more than two decades until his 2018 ouster when the school’s misrepresentations came to light — said the U.S. Attorney’s Office had recently informed them that it was pursuing a grand jury indictment against him and others in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, at least two former members of Porat’s staff have recently refused to sit for depositions in related litigation, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

Those disclosures surfaced in court filings this month in a separate defamation suit that Porat, 74, is pursuing against the university over the circumstances of his removal.

Porat’s lawyers, who did not return requests for comment, accused Temple in court papers Tuesday of stoking the criminal probe and trying to turn their client into a “scapegoat.”

But, in a filing in the defamation case last week, the university for the first time laid the blame squarely on Porat. Not only did the fraud occur under his watch, the school’s lawyers said, he was its “mastermind.”

“He conceived it, controlled it and kept it hidden, only to try later to cover it up,” attorney Carolyn P. Short wrote. “M. Moshe Porat bears personal responsibility for the Fox School’s intentional submission of false ranking data.”

» READ MORE: Did rankings craze hurt Temple’s business school?

A Temple spokesperson declined Wednesday to discuss the criminal probe, aside from saying the university was cooperating with the investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also declined to comment.

Since 2018, when U.S. News & World Report removed Fox’s online MBA program from its annual evaluations after a four-year run at No. 1, the fallout has cost the university millions in legal settlements with the Department of Education, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, and former students, who contended their degrees have been devalued as a result.

University president Richard M. Englert ousted Porat as the head of the business school in July of that year but stopped short of directly blaming him, saying only that the faulty data had occurred under his leadership and that an independent investigation concluded administrators had “knowingly” submitted misrepresentations to U.S. News.

» READ MORE: Ousted dean, false rankings data, AG probe: A guide to the Temple business school scandal

The rankings are the subject of fierce competition among universities as top spots on the list can attract nationwide interest from potential students and millions in tuition dollars.

But to Porat, who took over the business school in 1996, Fox’s positioning on the annual lists became an obsession, according to emails and depositions submitted in the defamation case. He pressured his staff for years to find ways to increase the school’s positioning before Fox reached the top, the documents show.

When results failed to materialize quickly enough, he replaced the team that had overseen the school’s annual submissions with a handpicked group that included a statistics professor charged with reverse engineering the criteria U.S. News used to calculate school scores.

The effort paid off. By 2013 Fox was reliably able to guess where it would rank on U.S. News’ annual list, former administrators have said in depositions. And by obscuring, finessing — and in some cases outright lying in — the data, the school successfully climbed to No. 1 for the first time in 2014, Temple’s lawyers said.

» READ MORE: Ousted Temple dean Moshe Porat was a rainmaker for the business school

When others at Temple suggested that Fox share its methodology with the rest of the university, Porat insisted upon keeping their strategies a secret.

“It may sound like we have found a gold mine,” he wrote in an email, “or we are engaging in some kind of trickery!”

In a deposition in the defamation case last year, Porat’s chief deputy and Fox’s former vice dean, Rajan Chandran, said that as early as 2014, he, Porat, and other top lieutenants were well aware that their national rankings were built on intentional misrepresentations.

“I didn’t do anything,” he said. “That’s my mistake. I ought to have reported it.”

Chandran’s lawyer, Patrick Egan, said Wednesday that Chandran became confused during the deposition and denies any wrongdoing.

Another Porat aide, Marjorie O’Neill, who oversaw the school’s submissions to U.S. News, told a law firm Temple commissioned to investigate the matter that she knowingly falsified data for years at Porat’s direction. She recently invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and declined to be deposed in the defamation case.

By 2017, others outside Porat’s inner circle had begun to question the data the school was submitting.

In a series of emails, Darin Kapanjie, then head of the online MBA program, raised concerns with Tom Kegelman, the assistant dean in charge of the school’s admissions, noting inconsistencies in the numbers that he assumed at the time were mistakes.

“We need all eyes on these and on them now,” Kapanjie warned.

Will Reith, then the director of Fox’s graduate enrollment, drafted a separate email to O’Neill noting that the school had incorrectly stated that all students in the online MBA program had taken a graduate entrance exam when, in actuality, only 42 had done so.

When U.S. News announced months later that it had again ranked Temple at the top of its annual charts, Reith and others were horrified to discover that the errors they had flagged in the data had not been fixed despite assurances that corrections had been made.

Kegelman confronted O’Neill. “If you just burned the school down, I’ll never forgive you,” he recalled saying in a recent deposition.

He sought to raise the issue in a later meeting, prompting heated debate among Porat and his top administrators. But those discussions were cut short and ultimately abandoned so they could attend a champagne toast scheduled with Temple’s provost to celebrate the school’s fourth year at the top, Kegelman recalled

“Dean Porat said, ‘Well, if they haven’t caught it … what makes you think they will catch it now?’” recalled Christine Kiely, an assistant dean at Fox, during her deposition. “He seemed annoyed that we were talking about it — in essence, turning ourselves in.”

It took two subsequent meetings to persuade Porat to contact U.S. News to correct the inaccurate data, his staff testified. But even afterward, emails show he continued to press Temple’s PR department to publicize the faulty ranking.

More errors were discovered in the data the school submitted, prompting Temple administrators to ask U.S. News to withdraw the school from all forthcoming ranking reports.

In the years since, Temple has taken steps to tighten procedures for reporting its data and Fox has reentered the rankings far below its previous perch. Porat has refused to take responsibility and blamed his subordinates for the errors.

» READ MORE: #Inflategate? After losing its #1 U.S. News ranking, Temple's online MBA program faces many challenges

He did not return calls for comment Wednesday and has not yet responded to the allegations the university lodged against him in the defamation case last week. His attorneys have asked to stay those proceedings, citing his impending federal indictment.

In the meantime, he remains on Temple’s staff as a tenured professor, making roughly $300,000 a year — a salary he said in his deposition he now earns for doing nothing.